To me, a native Texan, New England was always a far-off dream, a distant fairy tale where sailboats, lobster, and the Kennedys lived harmoniously in seaside mansions. In my part of the world — the Texas panhandle, tucked away between Oklahoma and New Mexico hours from the ocean — New England might as well have been old England — both truly exotic compared to my dusty, Dairy Queen-filled upbringing.
On a recent road trip from New York City to Maine, I finally got to experience firsthand the New England fantasy I dwelled on growing up. And while the roadside lobster shacks and laid-back pace of life were exactly what I dreamed of, my overnight stay at Kennebunk’s White Barn Inn wasn’t just a highlight of my time in Maine, but one of the best hotels this travel editor has experienced in the U.S.
Quintessentially American, the White Barn Inn & Spa is part of the Auberge Resorts Collection. It features delightful inn-style rooms and suites, as well as a collection of ultra-luxe, waterfront cottages in a private enclave within walking distance of the hotel. Here, each room and suite is uniquely decorated, playing on what could be considered “classic” yet refined and elevated. But for a real treat, opt for a cottage.
Worthy of the splurge, White Barn’s five cottages range from 400 to over 1,000 square feet, and all come with a fireplace, large living areas, and access to the property’s heated infinity pool. In the Friendship Cottage, where I stayed with my partner and our dog, I found myself in a space that was truly luxurious, but also laid-back and charming.
Upon checking in at the hotel’s main building (where refreshing drinks greet you at the car) and being escorted the three-minute drive to the cottage, I knew that I was in for something special. At 1,000 square feet, the Friendship Cottage is bigger than my Brooklyn apartment. In fact, the bathroom is bigger than my apartment — a realization that was quickly washed away in an hour-long bubble bath. On entering, a wood-burning fireplace welcomes you, along with a view into the ornate bedroom area, decorated with a stunning blue and white wall tapestry to match the headboard. There’s also a second living area with windows looking out onto the boat-filled river. And through the back door in the backyard, Adirondack chairs sit facing docked boats, waterfront restaurants, and the picturesque town itself.
Before returning for dinner at the highly acclaimed White Barn Inn Restaurant, our corgi, Splenda, was treated to room service from the Canine Cuisine menu, with options better than some hotel offerings for humans. After she chowed down on a salmon filet with broccolini and fell into a blissful slumber, we dressed up and made the short walk to eat in the restaurant. (At White Barn, certain sections of the property are pet-friendly, including the cottages. It’ll cost you $175, but guarantees that, like you, your furry friend will be treated like royalty.)
At the restaurant, helmed by executive chef Matthew Padilla, a stunning menu of New England- and Maine-centric dishes are served in a rustically elegant 1860s-era barn. With two set tasting menus, be prepared for a pleasantly overwhelming array of seasonal and freshly sourced foods. A mini caviar and truffle lobster roll checks all the boxes, while the tomato gazpacho with avocado sorbet refreshes the palate before moving to the main dish: Kennebunkport lobster with Champagne lobster sauce, gnocchi, parsnips, Asian pears, and lobster mushrooms. My advice: Order different plates to try a little bit of everything, splurge for the wine pairings, and request a table near the seasonal picture window to really have the full experience.
Full and feeling good, a slow walk back to the cottage helped the delicacies of the night settle. Inside, a warm fire made the cottage feel like home and Maine feel like the only place in the world that mattered at that moment. In the comfortable bed, sleep was harder to find than I thought possible, but only because I didn’t want the night to end.
The next morning, before checking out and facing the reality that this was just a temporary respite from everyday life, we returned for a breakfast of pancakes and lobster Benedict at Little Barn. Open to guests for breakfast and the general public for drinks and dining nightly, this quaint space, the casual offset of the restaurant, opened last summer as part of the hotel’s comprehensive redesign by New York-based Jenny Wolf Interiors.
Over coffee and bloody marys, we reflected on the magic of the entire experience — the impeccable service, the dreamy cottage surrounded by boats, the sheer volume of delicious lobster, and, in the midst of the pandemic, how safe we felt because of Auberge’s meticulous cleaning and COVID-19 protocols. If you’re looking for New England, whatever version you thought you knew, trust me, it’s better at the White Barn Inn.
Tanner Saunders is the Experiences Editor at Travel + Leisure. He’s still thinking about lobster. Follow him on Instagram @tizanner.
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